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Nómadas. Revista Crítica de Ciencias Sociales y Jurídicas | 38 (2013.2)

EMPIRE AND DEMOCRACY, A CRITICAL READING OF MICHAEL


IGNATIEFF

Maximiliano E. Korstanje
Universidad de Palermo, Argentina

http://dx.doi.org/10.5209/rev_NOMA.2013.v38.42907

Abstract.- Empires expand their hegemony combined two contrasting forces; one is violence
the second is characterized by persuasion. Ideology works in these contexts, as an efficient
instrument of self-indoctrination whereby dominated cultures accept the cultural matrix of
empire. In this vein, the present essay-review not only questions the employment of human
rights in the liberal thought, but also tries to respond to the conceptual problems of liberalism to
understand terrorism. Based on two seminal texts written by the liberal Michael Ignatieff, we
formulate the thesis that liberalism supports the war against terror because of its doctrine of
self-determination.
Keywords.- Ignatieff, democracy, war-mongers, empires

Introduction
The present essay review explores the conceptual obstacles, problems and
contributions of Michael Ignatieff respecting to the theory of Human Rights.
From 9/11 onwards, many analysts saw the turning point of a new facet,
whereby fear played a crucial role. The precautionary principle as it has been
coined in Europe led state to act under the logic of pre-emption, declaring the
preventive war against other states. The preventive attack resulted from the
logic of pre-emption is based on the future. This exhibits the sign of new times,
when future rules over present (Baudrillard, 2006). One of the most problems
the liberal thought faced in this context was the unilateral justification of
preventive war in US and Europe. The existent jurisprudence stipulates that
states do not declare the war to other state excepting if anyone has substantial
evidence of a next blow. The boundaries between substantial evidence and
justifications seem to be slim. Precisely, liberalism was a thought born to
respect plurality and multiculturalism. How can a liberal pave the ways to
legitimate the American war on terror?. To respond this question, we have
painstankely examined the work of Michael Ignatieff and his development along
with the connection between the doctrine of self-determination and human
rights. In so doing, some conceptual misunderstandings not only facilitate the
acceptance of preventive against terrorism but also dispense a criticism on the
concept of human right itself. Born in 1947 and well known as Canadian
historian, Ignatieff was educated in the core of Anglo Canadian thought. In his
career he was lecturer at prestigious universities as Cambridge, Harvard and
Oxford. Elected as chief of liberal party in Canada from 2008 / 2011, Ignatieff

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consolidated a theory on human rights and jurisprudence to understand the


collateral effect of terrorism for democracy.
A. Schopenhauer confirmed that events are classified because we have a
conceptual frame to sort the meanings. Any situation can be less or more
controlled, but what is important is our feeling of being in charge. The idea of
freedom or free choice remains in absurd, an illusion brought by Anglo-Saxon
cosmology. The word is given to human mind by dint of experience. When we
admit our freedom, we accept our limitation to decide between two doors, two
courses of actions. At time we opt for A, B option is closed. Therefore, our
decision is not liberated to all option; rather it is limited to our finitude
(Schopenhauer, 2007). In a moment of history, the ideology of freedom was
imposed to feudal form of life.

Preliminary Discussion
In the book Human Rights, Ignatieff clarifies that United States has promoted
the respect of human assistance but at the same time refused the application of
any resolution when its doctrine of self-determination is at stake. Human Rights
are not good or bad, they are necessary, Ignatieff adds. After WWII, the world
witnessed the emergence of two contrasting view-points. Nazism has
propounded that humankind, doted of all benefits and rights. This group
juxtaposed to the “untermenschen” whose rights were systemically vulnerated.
In view of this, the successive covenants and international agreements signed
by western countries were aimed at preventing similar crippling damage
produced by Nazism. What is important to discuss here is that human rights
recovered the identity of self; in other terms, the egalitarian nature of human-
agency (Ignatieff, 2001). Well the problem lies that originally many countries
signed to the agreement but in fact did not move any resource to grant the
human rights of ethnic minorities. This provoked that many NGO or activists
struggled to impose the agenda of Human Rights in the international organism
of credit, and commerce to the extent to pose this as a central ideology in
American administration. This does not improve the situation of vulnerated
minorities because at time the rights of some groups are protected, the other
ones are violated.
Nonetheless, US created a state of exception based on its right of self-
determination in homeland. The intervention of any outsider country in US
would be considered a direct attack against the sovereignty of this nation and
repelled accordingly. This opens a paradox precisely when US is the country
which violates human rights of other minorities. Whilst these human rights found
a new constitutional human agency, at the same time invests protection on US
as the international police of the world, where human right violation cannot be
punished. Quite aside from this, Ignatieff points out human rights are morally
based on the need of respect and tolerance, a grounding aspect of what human
means.
With the benefits of hindsight, he recognizes that this turn point leads to political
narcissism because promotes that the land of democracy should be questioned
or falls under the dilemma that US has nothing to learn from others. For that,
Europeans and Canadian claim that US violates systematically the Declaration
of Human Rights, accepting as fundamental the capital punishment in its soil.

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Rather, the public opinion does not share this view and consider the capital
punishment as an expression of the self-determination. Ignatieff argues
convincingly that human rights rests on a paradox. Those states which should
protect for their vulnerable minorities, take advantage of their privileged
situation to eradicate them. This is the reason why we cannot situate the
principle of self-determination in the discussion of human right interpretation.
First and most important, minorities wander through the world lacking of a state
to reach protection. Secondly, by strengthening the resource of states is a way
to improve the instrument to vulnerated the rights of minorities. Whatever the
case may be, democracy and human rights has limits in their applications.
Activists should understand that communities have right to live as they want.
Any right is not only political but also remains enrooted in a previous legal
framework that precedes how this right is applied. The idealization of human
rights is dangerous because it leads US to make an imperial interpretation of
the needs of intervention. Given this, one might understand the problem as a
dichotomy between two sides, two interpretations: human rights as politics, and
human rights as idolatry. The former refers to the application of rights to protect
the vulnerability of people while the others is a sacred belief that aims to think
the concept of human rights resolve all our disputes as civilization.
The cold-war reserved two super powers, each one with the right to intervene in
their peripheries but once the soviet bloc collapsed, US transformed in an all
encompassing power which unless otherwise resolved may become in a
dictatorship. Human rights as idolatry are the pretexts for army-led invasions to
autonomous countries. At the time, US leans to a more political application of
human right, less possibility for democracy to run out. Human rights should be
discussed in the table of international foreign affairs to agree multilateral
consensus. This seems to be exactly what activists and human right proponents
do not understand. They are exacerbated the human rights to be applied in all
spheres of human beings. This not only is dangerous but also keeps the
situation out of control. If we assume that human right’s doctrine may resolve
international disputes is as illogic as precluding that anti-abort struggle. For
example, detractors and proponents of abort agree that nobody has the right to
take the life of someone, but there are conceptual limitations at time of settling
when a fetus reaches the status of human being. Ignatieff understands clearly
the conflict of interpretations given in disputes of this calibre. He adds, this
happens because conflict and disputes are part of politics. For that, human
rights should not been contemplated beyond the boundaries of conflict and
politics. Prohibiting the abort, we are violating the basic human rights as if we
promote it. The solution rests on the deliberative democracy, which facilitates
the condition of debate.
Last but not least, Ignatieff acknowledges that his criticism is not directed
against human rights but to the idolatry given by activists. They like to create a
universal matrix that transcends all types of cultural interpretation, no matter
than the moral and cultural values of each folk. In a democracy, rules must be
protected but very well may be altered if the conditions of stability are broken.
To avoid democracy is not trapped in the same it promotes, it is necessary to
recur to the construction of a constitutional order, a main text that legislates on
almost all problems of community. Otherwise, we witness how democracy set
the pace to the dictatorship of majority. In the democratic life, rebels and

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isolationist attempts of independence can be negotiated in the deliberative logic,


sometimes giving representation in the parliament, others accepting some of
their demands. In any case, democratic nations should accept claims imposed
by terror, violence or extortion. With the end of grating the freedom of
isolationist groups, the negotiation should be situated under the lens of scrutiny
of other democratic states. Most certainly, the discrepancy between self-
determination and human rights are resolved in view of three key factors, a) the
deliberative democracy, b) the struggle of all state against terrorism, c) the right
of intervention of democratic states to respect the liberties of minorities.
Ignatieff goes on to say overtly that
“So Human rights might best fortified in today’s World not by weakening of
already overburdened states but by their being strengthened wherever possible.
State failure cannot be rectified by human right activism on the part of NGO´s.
What is required when state fail is altogether more ambitious; regional powers
brokering peace accords between factions, peacekeeping forces to ensure that
truces stick, multilateral assistance to build national institutions, like tax
collection, police forces, courts, and basic welfare services” (p 35)
Starting from the premise that human rights are granted only under negative
liberty, it is important not to loose the sight they only can be thought in the moral
individualism. Persons cannot be protected without their authorization. If human
rights are applied out of context, we run the risk to face allegations to make a
false aporia to legitimate our own interests. What characterized the lack of
criticism of the most terrible fascist regimes was not their cruelty, but the fully
obedience and devotion the follower showed by their leaders. To prevent that,
we must build the individual agency of morality. The theory of human rights
recovers the old project of Enlightenment, which envisaged the human being as
a particular entity morally divided. Nobody can be forced to obey unmoral
orders. As the previous argument given, Ignatieff says that minimalism
promotes the belief that the nature of right is not associated to protecting
groups, but only to protect the subject that take part. Therefore, the idolatry
interpretation of human right has to do with religion and not with politics. Rights
are discussed in the field of politics, because what the declaration resolved is
our capacity to take a decision about our fate,
“What the declaration does mandate is the right to choose, and specifically the
right to leave when choice is denied. The global diffusion of right language
would never have occurred had these not been authentically attractive
propositions to millions of people, specially women, in theocratic, traditional, or
patriarchal societies” (p. 70)
Neither human rights should be seen as good for people, but necessary and
just, nor mandatory and universally applied to all cultures. Evocation of these
rights is only possible to the petition of victims before a broader state.
Nonetheless, this begs an interesting question, what role plays terrorism to
undermine the democratic tenets of a Republic?.
On his book the Lesser Evil, political ethics in an Age of Terror, Ignatieff
recapitulates on the needs to admit that democratic states reduces their
warrants in context of disorder and instability. The constitution, the stepping
stone of the society has no application in context of emergency. Whenever this
temporal condition is continuously expanded to legitimate political interests, the

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democracy is underplayed in favor of the surfacing of dictatorship. Terrorism not


only enables these types of conditions but evokes the need to establish the
lesser evil for society. The unjust act of war is impossible to prevent, but only in
democracy that cruelty can be regulated. The self control of democratic
institutions outweighs the abuse of some others in moment of uncertainty. The
liberty of people is undermined because the state should predict when the next
blow will take form. What seems to be important to take in mind, if this is only
temporal or adopted as a tactic to introduce policies that otherwise would be
rejected.
Ignatieff enumerates three forms state intervenes in crisis:
NATIONAL refers to the suspension of constitutional liberties to further notice in
all territory.
TERRITORIAL signals to some provinces of colonies where individual rights
are not observed.
SELECTIVE is based on the suspension of liberties for some ethnic minorities
while the state of right is valid in the rest of country.
What Ignatieff discusses is that before the next terrorist attack, state very well
recur to violation of some human rights because expand the torture as a
mechanism of struggle. The derived consequences, rather, may be disastrous if
these practices persist in a long term. The lesser evil doctrine attempts to
galvanize the discussion between realist and moral purists respecting to torture.
The goal of democracy is to grant the logic of deliberation and participation as
practice enrooted in the political fields. The degree of violence exerted on the
bodies in democracy should be limited to affect temporarily only few people.
Democracy decides on two evils, the greater and the lesser one. To here, we
have synthesized as objective as possible the development of Ignatieff on the
human rights, terrorism and democracy.

Criticism to Ignatieff´s development


By keeping with democracy, Robert Castel (2006) explains that industrial
revolution has liberalized the social bonds, originally coined in Middle Age, in
order to be canalized to mass-consumption. The introduction of liberty as a
universal concept was conducive to industrialism and later to the consolidation
of capitalism. At some extent, this has triggered an asymmetry of power
between citizens and officials. This gap is fulfilled by international business
corporations with the end of protecting the interest of elite. Castel describes
how the success of capitalism depended on the adoption of new paradigms that
modify the relationship of human beings with their kinship, soil, and labor.
Rationale, on one hand, closed the uncertainty opened by the liberty pushing
workers to decide on their best alternative of work. Moved exclusively by their
psychological needs, work-force migrated to sell their work to new owners.
Without the concept of freedom, this change would never have been possible.
Whenever, C. Castoriadis claimed that democracy was dead forever after the
Peloponnesus war, he was right. Castoriadis recognizes the divergence
between classic and modern democracy. Greeks, far war of defying the
authority of their king, accepted democracy only as a resource to derogate a

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law if it was unjust. Without Christendom as moral regulator, Greeks believed


on the law of stronger. The world was not created to be administered by
human beings; they should demonstrate their superiority to rule over it. The
agriculture, slavery and war were the key factors of ancient Greece. The
modern conception of liberty is given by the liberalization of work-forces. The
anglo-Saxon empires (United Kingdom and United States) not only
tergiversated the meaning of democracy but impeded the lay-people to take
active participation in the sanction of laws. The old liberty of Greeks set the
pace to a new one, corporative and manipulated by elite to stimulate the mass-
consumption. Therefore, we must speak of anglo-democracy as the political
expression of republican values as well as the laws which are sanctioned by
corporations (Korstanje, 2013).
Not surprisingly, the ancient form of democracy is manipulated into coherent
forms of consumptions, where the vulnerability of workers rises. As a result of
this, the production of goods is posed to stimulate consumption and protect the
system from glitches. The social bonds wane in favor of a homogenous mass
without hierarchies, or defined roles, leading people to uncertainty and despair.
In this sense, the fear for others not only reinforces the boundaries of the
economic system but generate an instrument of indoctrination to preserve the
consciousness of capital.
Secondly, human rights as Ignatieff imagined, tend to the dictatorship of the
“unique” by two main reasons. The theory of sovereignty alludes to think that a
democratic state may exert the violence to intervene other, or being subject to
the force of a third state, if necessary (this means when the democracy is on
danger). If the self-determination is explained in the roots of the sate,
democracy expels rejection to be intervened by a third state. If this is correct,
the state of exception of US was not a result of the cultural values but a vicious
in the way of thinking the boundaries of constitutional democracy. Further,
Ignatieff ignores the harsh criticism of C. Sunstein and R. Dworking on the
constitutional interpretations. Dworking has formulated a coherent thesis that
explains how judges join in corporations that defend the interests of status quo.
Based on the pretext to protect the citizen’s liberty, judges take a biased and
contextual reading of constitution to encourage some issues while discouraging
others. For example, this has been widely documented by Dworking; the
supreme court may promote the slavery as well as the over-work if these
policies are conducive to the elite.
M. Freeman (2011) follows the same argument considering that human rights
are only conceptual construes, which are employed in context of turbulence and
uncertainty to decide on certain issues. However, these rights are built on a
broader criterion of selection where some values are more important than
others. In this vein, human rights only are circulating in public opinion whenever
the perceived security of community is on danger. In other situations, they lack
of practical applications.
Michael Waltzer (1992) confirmed that any war-fare or direct intervention
resulted from the idea to prevent an external blow seems to worsen the
situation. The quest of a solution is given by the meeting and negotiation.
Although wars may be codified to prevent the attacks against civilians and non-
combatant people, effects affect directly or indirectly the civilians because

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attacks destroy the economic infrastructure that they need to survive. To


formulate a dichotomy between just or unjust war is functional to the pretext to
the interest of those who exert pressure to declare the war.
Third, if we think that human right can be universally applied to all human
beings, this suggests that only one state (a super super power) is enough to
grant the communal safety. As this argument given, its formulation merits to
question to what extent human rights are functional to the dictatorship of
“human rights”. Besides, minorities had not developed abilities to anticipate the
acts of their states. If minorities will be exterminated in a later day, they have no
way of asking the protection of other states as Ignatieff insists. Although he
knows the danger of preemption, this means the preventive intervention, the
design of human rights are drawn to constitute an international police power,
amalgamated by various or few stronger states.
J. Albrecth-Meylahn criticizes to Ignatieff that the use of violence is proportional
to pervasive counter-effects. Based on the contribution of S. Zizek, any
revolution is condemned the same cruel acts previously criticized by them
before the coup. This happens because of two primary motives. The first and
most important, the physical violence may fluctuate, but if the systemic violence
is not extirpated, the material asymmetries that triggered the revolution persist.
On this logic, Ignatieff is unable to resolve the paradox situation of torture the
most democratic nation of the world, US, today encourages.
Gutmann (2001) tackles off the text of Ignatieff alluding that his problem is the
concept of sovereignty. It is based on the need to believe in the negative liberty.
Ignatieff´s account is troublesome because of the following reasons:
• if we decide to appaling a woman because of infidelity, why US allows
the capital-punishment?.
• Sovereignty is the first archetype, which appeal those states at time of
violating the human background.
• As formulated by West, human right looks to develop an ethnocentric
view of self determination, a chauvinistic expression of nationhood.
Guttmann goes ahead, and says that the quandary in Ignatieff is to believe that
the self-defense and self determination are natural values. If states are drawn to
grant the well being of their members (the protection of the weak), the human
rights confers legitimacy to the law of stronger. Gutmann considers that
nationalism is the main problem of human right theory.
The way Ignatieff understands the legal jurisprudence poses serious challenge
for liberal thought, and of course this waked up a serious criticism. A Appiah
(2001) contemplates that rights are not subject or individual but applied
collectively. Rights are not derived from deliberation, as Ignatieff says, but a
previous covenant among involved parts. The first of contradiction is to say that
rights are enrooted in subjectivism, because it calls to sedition, to the
desegregation of colonies or indexed communities of a state. In the same
token, D. A Hollinger (2001) establishes Ignatieff formulates a theory to
interpelate the periphery, to other cultures in a one-sided gaze. If we apply on
individual rights we are appealing to the civil wars. T. Laqueur (2001) coincides
with Ignatieff on the importance of human rights for international agenda, but his
view is romantic. It is not necessary too much effort to realize the history of

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XXth century is fraught of genocides, ethnic cleansing and civil wars where the
human rights were systematically violated. The evolution of sate, if we pay the
necessary attention, was given by centuries of struggle and war. Whenever a
power disarticulates another state by its intervention, as Elias put it, the chaos
emerges. While state has been consolidated by thousand years of violence and
war, with thousand of victims, intervention in other political structures should be
carefully conducted. This has been a typical error the fear-mongers, as Ignatieff,
does not contemplate.
Last but not least, Ignatieff does not understand clearly the roots of terrorism. G.
Skoll explains that the function of state is to maintain the hierarchical status quo
by exerting power and violence over populations. In times of low conflict, the
legitimacy of state rests on the market which confers certain stability. In the
context of relative chaos and disorder the state resorts to violence to refashion
the threatened order. Similarly, the market mediates among human beings by
imposing a state of gratification in lieu of constraints, but the moment the control
weakens, fear replaces gratification as motivator to legitimize the ruling order
(Skoll, 2007). Terrorism, however, situates as a mirror of western style of life.
They are not ill-minded persons who want to destroy our civilization, but a
radical experiment of our form of connecting with otherness. Terrorists, let
remind to readers, were educated in the best western universities, they earned
a degree in management or even a Ph D. What they learned from us is how to
use in context of leisure (where we more vulnerable stand) our own ways of
negotiations based on violence and speculation. Further, J. Piazza documented
three examples to confirm the acts of terrorism resulted from democracy, in
moment when some parties are pushed to clandestinity. In the weak
partidocracies, terrorism operates as an instrument of negotiation. Piazza´s
account not only contradicts almost thousand of studies dedicated to point out
that terrorism is a consequence of poverty, but also warns of the problems and
inequalities of democracy to balance the interest of all stakeholders (Piazza,
2005).

Conclusion
Although democracy is two thousand years of age, the division of power which
has been the tenet of republic is anew. This surfaced in England after the coup
and assassination of Charles I as well as the industrial advance that liberalized
all worker bonds. These two events were of paramount importance to forge a
new sense of liberty, known in ancient world. The end of WWII consolidated the

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hegemony of Anglo-Empire in hands of US. Democracy as today is conceived


resulted from a tergiversation of the old resource of demos, as Castoriadis put
it. The Anglo-democracy was based on the doctrine of sovereignty and self-
determination. The expansion of this ideology was possible thanks to a second
concept, the human rights. The gap between citizens and their kings was
fulfilled by international business corporations that framed an economic
globalization where the capital is replicated. The individual moral agency
promoted by Ignatieff is functional to this type of paradigm. As the question has
been formulated in the introduction, we are in condition to answer, the doctrine
of self determination leads liberalism not to understand the effect of preventive
war. Since they estimate that the lesser evil is the best possible course of
action, to prevent the downfall of democracy, liberalism precludes that
international alliance grant a just application of human rights. Paradoxically, if
one state confers authority of intervention of other state this means imperialism.
Also human rights as formulated by liberalism are condemned to become in “the
dictatorship of human rights”.

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